Empty nests and empty pews: Church affiliation declines after high school

Step into any church on Sunday morning and you’ll most likely find a congregation split into two distinct groups: parents with their children and cotton-topped old timers. Who’s missing here? The young adults. The reasons for this vacuum are still speculative, but the trend is clear, and it appears to ramp up after high school. A team of psychologists from UCLA just completed a four-year longitudinal study looking at the religious transitions from adolescence to young adulthood. Their data show a remarkable decline in formal religious affiliation as kids leave home and head off to college. Having spread their wings, teenagers usually fly away from the sanctuary.

The study was designed by Andrew Fuligni, analyzed and drafted by Melissa Chan, and assisted in all areas by Kim Tsai. Working out of UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Development and the Department of Psychology, Fuligni’s team does research on the interaction of the environment with the development of adolescents into young adulthood. They are particularly interested in teenagers from Asian, Latin American, European, and immigrant communities.

The team’s paper looks at the developmental period from the 12th grade until four years later. A sample of 584 students from three different Los Angeles high schools were given extensive questionnaires to gauge religious affiliation, participation, and identity. Alongside this inquiry were questions to determine each participant’s sense of meaning and purpose, which are often positively correlated with religiosity. Follow-up surveys were given in two year intervals (for a total of three questionnaires per participant) in order to assess the rate of change over time.

The study’s ethnic demographics were not representative of the US as a whole – 39% were from Asian backgrounds, 27% Latin American, and 15% European American – but these proportions are typical of many districts in LA and other major American cities. It is also worth noting that a large percentage of students began the study claiming no religious affiliation, with just under half of both Asian and European Americans in this group. On the other hand, over half of the Latin American students claimed Catholicism, with another 14.5% belonging to some other Christian denomination.

Fuligni’s team hypothesized that there would be an overall decline in religious affiliation and church attendance, particularly in participants who attended 4-year colleges away from home. By their reasoning, parental influence would likely be a key motivator toward religious participation. Therefore, the looser the leash, the freer the spirit. Those students who stayed close to home should also tend to remain in their home church. Surprisingly, this prediction was only half-correct. There was a significant decline in religious affiliation, but this occurred regardless of whether the subjects attended a university, whether the school was two-year or four-year, or whether they lived at home or moved away. This suggests that, contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, parental influence in declining affiliation is minimal to none.

Although all participants showed a significant movement away from their childhood traditions, Latin Americans showed the most significant changes. Nearly 75% began the study claiming some religious affiliation, decreasing to about 50% by the fourth year. This drop was far greater than any other ethnic group. In terms of religious identity – i.e., how participants thought of their own religious beliefs, as opposed to how they saw themselves in relationship to an institution – males showed a sharp decline in this category, while female identity remained stable despite their decline in affiliation.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was that those who maintained their religious affiliation and identity also showed a much greater sense of meaning and purpose. For reasons unknown, this effect was particularly noticeable in Latin American individuals. It appears that while many Latin Americans ventured away from their original traditions, those who remained were intensely moved by their faith.

Fuligni’s team speculates that young adults being exposed to a variety of worldviews outside the home is a major factor in the sharp decline in stable religiosity. They also suggest that at such a vibrant age, the pursuit of romantic relationships is a more pressing goal than church participation. The authors are very careful to note that their findings have no bearing on the participants’ belief in God or any other higher power, only their affiliation with established religious bodies. In the researchers’ words, “young adults are constructing their own set of beliefs rather than accepting a prescribed set of beliefs provided by institutional religion or the religion of their parents.”

The authors speculate that this spiritual exploration is made possible by the leisure enjoyed by wealthy societies in which the demands of adulthood can be avoided far beyond the teen years. I would add that in the modern West, religious affiliation is generally unnecessary for survival, especially in a metropolis like Los Angeles. So long as the bills are paid up, individuals are free to explore any and all identities, with or without a community. The solidarity and safety nets that religious institutions have traditionally provided now coexist with more secular support systems. Fuligni and company’s findings suggest that when young adults are unconstrained, many will explore their options freely.

One crucial dilemma highlighted by this study is the remaining problem of meaning and purpose. Throughout human history, religion has provided spiritual orientation. In the age of secular enlightenment, many non-religious philosophers, artists, and pop psychologists have offered words of wisdom to fill the cracks in the temple walls. However, the consistently high correlation between religiosity and a sense of meaning suggests that secular alternatives have yet to fully replace traditional foundations. This may be one reason why many adult couples, especially those with children, find themselves back in the pews when the party finally winds down.

For more, read “Changes in Religiosity Across the Transition to Young Adulthood “ in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

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